Do Assignments Develop Critical Thinking Skills?

Do Assignments Develop Critical Thinking Skills?
Do Assignments Develop Critical Thinking Skills?
When the topic is critical thinking skills, the assumption is that everybody knows what it is, but when asked to define it, there’s usually some hesitation and the definitions don’t all agree. If pushed on the strategies used to develop these skills that everyone agrees are important, no definitive set emerges.

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When the topic is critical thinking skills, the assumption is that everybody knows what it is, but when asked to define it, there’s usually some hesitation and the definitions don’t all agree. If pushed on the strategies used to develop these skills that everyone agrees are important, no definitive set emerges. An article in the most recent issue of Teaching Sociology explores these issues and proposes new thinking that helps clarify the conceptual confusion that continues to surround critical thinking. Authors Kane and Otto propose that in sociology (and one might guess in other fields as well) two kinds of critical thinking are frequently conflated. The first they call “critical sociological thinking,” which refers to critical thinking within sociology that requires at least some understanding of the content. In other words, it’s critical thinking as only a sociologist can do it. It’s a discipline-based form of critical thinking. Then there is “critical thinking as cognitive work that emphasizes logic, argumentation and abstract thinking and is not discipline specific.” (p. 113) It’s a generic form of critical analysis and involves “cognitive tasks related to abstraction that lead to original, theoretically informed arguments.” (p. 114) To avoid confusion in the article, this generic critical thinking is referred as “higher-level thinking.” This article does not consider whether there is a unique form of critical thinking associated with every discipline, and it’s not a question that can be answered here with anything other than speculation. However, in most disciplines, there is this goal of getting students “to think like a . . .” fill in the profession. And that idea rests on the assumption that there is something unique about how persons in that profession think. Could how they critically think be a part of this broader unique way of thinking? To explore their supposition that faculty in sociology are conflating these two different kinds of critical thinking, the authors interviewed 20 sociology instructors “about how they think about, design and assess writing assignments.” (p. 113) Then they did a content analysis of 26 assignments provided by these instructors. They chose writing assignments because they’re the venue in which students most often practice their critical thinking skills. In the interviews, they discovered that the faculty identified goals more related to critical sociological thinking than to higher-level thinking, with some interviewees actually saying they did not want to use the term “critical thinking” as it pertained to the more generic form of thinking. “Overall, consistent with instructors’ downplaying of critical thinking skills as a goal of courses and assignments, most did not prepare their students to do this kind of work.” (p. 116) On the other hand, when asked questions pertaining to how they evaluated student work on these written assignments, 14 of the 20 referenced some kind of higher-level thinking skills, with many of them pointing out how students’ writing did not show evidence of these skills. The authors include a quotation, written 30 years ago in Joanne Kurfiss’s widely referenced research report on critical thinking. “Students are often assigned tasks that require [critical thinking] skills, but the problem of acquiring the requisite skills is left to the ingenuity, good fortune, and native ability of the student.” (p. 118) An analysis of the assignments themselves led to another interesting finding. Using various sources, the authors created a “spectrum of intellectual tasks” frequently required by assignments. (p. 117) On the lower end, the task involved summarization, moving next to application of concepts, then application of theoretical frameworks, to development of thesis-driven arguments, and ending on the higher end with responding to ill-structured problems. Of the 26 assignments analyzed, 15 were at the lower end of the spectrum, asking for summaries and application of concepts. Only one assignment had students writing in response to an ill-structured problem, and only four tasked them with producing a thesis-driven argument. In terms of course level, students were still being asked to complete summary and concept application assignments in 300-level courses. The authors point out that these instructors were expecting “students to demonstrate [higher-level thinking] skills even when the intellectual task may not be conducive to higher-level thinking. For instance, we should not expect an independent, thesis-driven argument from an assignment that asks students to summarize.” (p. 118) It’s a telling piece of scholarship that should motivate faculty in every field to consider if they are explicitly teaching thinking skills, what those thinking skills might be, and if their assignments give students the opportunity to practice these skills. Reference: Kane, D. and Otto, K. (2018). Critical sociological thinking and higher-level thinking: A study of sociologists’ teaching goals and assignments. Teaching Sociology, 46 (2), 112-122.